A long time ago, in a galaxy called my twenties, I used to shave my head. I shaved my head and wore overalls and Adidas high tops and rode the bus down to Washington DC to march around the mall with placards for things I believed in. Most of those things centered around women’s reproductive rights: Bush, stay out of Mine sort of stuff. I am a daughter of Free to Be You and Me, beneficiary of nationwide educational policies meant to close the gender gap in math and science. I came of age post bra burning, post ERA, post Roe v. Wade; right at the tail end of Take Back the Night, smack in the middle of The Beauty Myth and Backlash.
It was a great time to be a feminist.
My marching days, my placard carrying trips, my Sister Suffragette bonding day trips down to DC are long over. Geography prevents me from traveling to Washington DC to lodge a protest on the sidewalk of the Capitol. Age, experience, and motherhood have all served to quell the flames of rage, to dampen the fires, though they will never go out completely. As with any passionate belief there are always embers waiting to be stirred, waiting to be poked and prodded and fanned back to life. There is plenty that needs addressing, though we are solidly within the new millennium. Institutionalized inequality, salary inequity, and forever and always, the battlefield of reproductive rights. There is plenty still to fight for, to march for, to make your voice heard for.
I’m just not sure the Ban Bossy movement is up there.
I think I have a pretty good understand of the importance of words. I am a lexicon geek. I get off on semantics. I’m a terrible speller, a decent grammarian, but I salivate when I get to delve into the whys of word choice, the conduct of coding and other geeky linguistic loopholes. One of the highlights of my college studies was a class in which I conducted research on usage of the word ‘girl’ vs. that of ‘woman’. It was delicious (and if you really want to know, a lot of folks are subconsciously uncomfortable with the sexuality and power that comes with the word woman).
From way up here on my soapbox, it is not the concept of the Ban Bossy movement I find fault with. I’m not going to argue that it is a frivolous attempt at addressing a serious issue. I would instead argue that banning the word bossy is the wrong approach. The word itself is used, disparagingly, to describe both sexes. I’m not sure where the idea that boys are never called bossy comes from because it’s simply not true. I hear it all the time, in playgrounds, in schoolyards, in the classroom, from my own mouth, directed at both girls and boys. Regardless of which sex is being labeled, it has a negative connotation. Trust me, if I attend a parent teacher conference and the teacher tells me my son is bossy, she’s not saying, “he’s got future leadership potential.” She is saying, “your kid is a pain in the ass who never lets anyone else talk or make a decision.”
If marijuana is the gateway to heroin, then bossiness is, in parenting and teaching parlance, the gateway to bullying.
It is women who are using the word bossy to describe behavior they don’t like. Mothers, mostly. Because to women, bossy is a negative thing. To women, telling other people what to do is a no-no; inclusion is encouraged at all costs, stepping on someone else’s words or ideas to get your voice heard is discouraged–in boys as well as girls. It is not the word ‘bossy’ that’s the problem. It is how we as women, as mothers, as teachers, and yes, as leaders, are transferring our ideals and values onto our children. We are arguing in circles that what is perceived as competitiveness and stubbornness in boys is seen as bossy in girls. Women often view these traits as negative in both sexes, yet the implication is that boys seem to be able to shoulder the label and make it work while girls become discouraged and withdraw.
Banning a word is not enough to change our perceptions. What needs to change is how much valuation we place on certain roles in society. Until we imbue a 2nd grade teacher with as much value as a CEO, we are stuck. Until we value a stay at home mother as much as we do a working mother, or a working mother as much we do a stay at home mother, we are stuck. Until we value the unique perspective that that women can bring to a position rather than trying to fit their round bodies into the square holes that we’ve been told are the ones to be most envied, most valued, most sought after, then we are stuck. Until we value a leader than is inclusive rather than able to take charge, one that is bossy, well, then we are well and truly stuck.
As women, as mothers and even as feminists, we spend a lot of time focusing on fair, on taking turns, on taking others into consideration; yet these are the opposite traits to what we traditionally look for in a leader. Before we can begin to address any inequities of how we view these traits in our children, we need to figure out what it is we want.
Our ideas of leadership can change, the same way our ideas about girls and math and about girls and science have changed. But until they do, we need some bossy girls, and boys, out there leading the way.
If you are going to drown out others to make your voice heard, make your voice count. There are plenty of battles still to fight.